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Lewes and the 20-minute neighbourhood

  • by JW

“The latest row comes after House of Commons leader Penny Mourdant last week unveiled a guide to help MPs understand eight of the biggest conspiracy theories posing a threat to democracy, [including] the claim that 15-minute cities and walkable neighbourhoods curb people’s freedoms.” [Architects Journal]


The four principles of the 15-minute city [or the 15-minute town] were first proposed by Carlos Moreno at the Paris COP21 conference in 2015:

Proximity: Things must be close.
Diversity: Land uses must be mixed to provide a wide variety of urban amenities nearby.
Density: There must be enough people to support a diversity of businesses in a compact land area.
Ubiquity: These neighbourhoods must be so common that they are available and affordable to anyone who wants to live in one.

The Guildford Society translated this into The 15 Minute Neighbourhood in 2021:

Initial reaction was less than positive; it didn’t seem possible for people to live, shop and work within a 15-minute radius. Covid and the Climate Crisis, has changed this perception. There are several cities and towns actively planning/implementing 15-Minute neighbourhoods,

Also in 2021, the idea of 15-minute neighbourhoods for Sidmouth was explored – much of it based on the Sid Valley Place Analysis put together for the Neighbourhood Plan.

In the meantime, Transition Town Lewes has put together The Phoenix Project – building a five-minute neighbourhood for Lewes:

To redevelop Lewes’ Phoenix Industrial Estate area, sustainable developers Human Nature are drawing on urban-planning principles being used in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin to create a neighbourhood built around people not cars.

Central to our plans is the principle of the five-minute neighbourhood, where most daily needs can be met within a short walk or cycle. This means the Phoenix will be truly mixed-use: made up of homes – of different types, sizes and price points (including designated affordable housing) – work and creative spaces, cafés, leisure facilities and communal green spaces, connected by safe and gentle streets.

The principle is our take on the 15-minute city, a phrase coined by French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno, and inspired by urban planning critic Jane Jacobs, author of the classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It has grown in popularity since it was adopted by leading urban designers in the 1990s and latterly Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who has promised to pedestrianise large parts of the city, create a bike lane in every street by 2024, and stop the reliance on private cars.

They have worked with the agency Creating Streets in Lewes, embracing the texture, variety and radical spirit of Lewes to create a new type of neighbourhood. And it is now part of the Lewes District Local Plan’ issues and options [see illustration].

All of which sounds ideal – and with a long established understanding of how development on a human scale could work.

However, an innocent piece of urban planning has got rather mixed up with conspiracy theories – meaning that engaging citizens on climate change with evidence and communication rather than fears and hearsay has become more important then ever.

And important it is. In a piece focussing on Oxford last year, it was shown “why the crazy 15-minute city conspiracy theory is no laughing matter“. Whilst in Devon, the problem with the Exeter LTN continues to bubble, with the latest news that the Exeter traffic scheme is facing the axe.

Much of this, then, is about dealing with mis/disinformation at the local level.

This week it has reached Lewes, with its MP Maria Caulfield facing calls to refer herself to the ethics adviser over her false ‘15-minute city’ claims.

Whilst the Lewes MP Maria Caulfield is predicted to lose her seat in the upcoming general election, this issue transcends party politics, with the Local Government Network reporting on the Minister being told to refer herself to the ethics advisor – as has the very apolitical Architects Journal, pointing today to the ethics row over claims about 15-minute cities:

‘Dishonest’ claims made by a government minister about 15-minute cities have been labelled ‘disappointing’ by the profession amid an ethics row. Opposition MPs have this week called for an investigation into anti-15 minute city leaflets circulated by Maria Caulfield, minister for mental health and women’s health strategy.

Quizzed on the leaflets circulated last year by BBC South East Today earlier this month (5 May), Caulfield appeared to confuse congestion charging with walkable neighbourhood schemes and said ‘with 15 minute cities, if you go out of your 15 minute area you will have to pay a road tax’. Lewes Council does not plan to introduce any charges, it told the broadcaster. The draft local plan does not mention road charges in any proposals for walkable 10 to 20-minute neighbourhoods either.

Responding to the row, members of the architecture profession called for government ministers to ‘educate themselves’ on the 15-minute city concept. The Conservative MP’s views were also branded ‘disappointing’. Bell Phillips associate Jay Morton told the AJ: ‘Ministers should educate themselves on the built environment and the benefits of concepts like the 15-minute city, which can enhance community wellbeing, improve health and environmental sustainability, rather than peddling wild conspiracy theories aimed at inciting outrage.’

The latest row comes after House of Commons leader Penny Mourdant last week unveiled a guide to help MPs understand eight of the biggest conspiracy theories posing a threat to democracy. The document was put together by charities and campaign groups such as Full Fact and the Antisemitism Policy Trust. Among the conspiracy theories it cited was the claim that 15-minute cities and walkable neighbourhoods curb people’s freedoms.